The 11:04 a.m. Metra train was a false alarm. But as Abby Peters, 5, and her brothers craned their necks to peer down the westbound tracks Saturday, the real deal followed quickly behind.
Covered with snowflake wrapping, the Operation North Pole/Metra train pulled into the Des Plaines station.
Elves, clowns, and the train crew welcomed aboard the special guests -- children with life-threating illnesses and their families.
"I can't believe I'm on the real train," said Abby, who watched "The Polar Express," movie Friday at home in North Aurora. "We're going to meet Santa Claus."
As the train headed northwest to Crystal Lake, the 61 families, comprising about 300 passengers, were treated to gifts, snacks and entertainment. Providing comic relief with her garish purple hair and oversized shoes was Jewels the clown, AKA Des Plaines village Clerk Gloria Ludwig.
Ludwig, who overcame childhood cancer, empathized with the young passengers' battles.
"I spent six months in four different hospitals," she remembered. "Now I pay it back."
Operation North Pole, a volunteer-based charity, organized the train trip which was followed by a visit to Santa and Mrs. Claus and a party at the Stephens Convention Center, decorated for the occasion in holiday finery. The aim is to provide a day off for families and kids coping with serious health issues. Abby underwent her first surgery for hydrocephalus, a condition where excessive fluid accumulates in the brain, when she was 2 months old.
The use of a shunt system to divert fluid is helping her to live a relatively normal life, but the 5-year-old still suffers from frequent headaches that sometimes require a hospital visit, mom Michelle explained.
Despite those challenges, "she's a very joyful child," Peters said. Because of all the early exposure to the medical world, Abby "wants to be a doctor when she grows up but she's debating whether to be an animal or people doctor," her mom said.
Therapy dogs Dickens and Yukon, who came along for the ride, may have tipped the balance. "I love all the puppies in the world," said Abby, as she petted the two huskies.
The mild weather was pleasant for volunteer firefighters and police, who waved to the children at about a dozen stations as they traveled along Metra's UP Northwest Line back to Des Plaines.
However, the lack of snow at the North Pole raised some questions for Abby and brothers Joseph, 7, and Daniel, 8.
"It's been kind of warm at the North Police," Des Plaines police officer Matt Jones explained. "I think they shoveled."
En route back to a meet-and-greet with Santa, Jack Speichet, 2½, jived and clapped his hands to "Frosty the Snowman."
The toddler, who wears a helmet to protect his head after surgeries to remove a brain tumor, is undergoing radiation treatment at a hospital in Memphis.
"We take it one day at a time," mom Sarah said, adding that it's Jack who keeps his parents' spirits up.
"He doesn't let it get him down," she said. "He'll have a few rough days and 100 good days."
Saturday was one of the good days.